What happens when infants and children do not get enough essential fatty acids?
Many scientific studies have demonstrated that there is a wide range of problems associated with omega-3 deficiencies. Children low in omega-3 fatty acids are significantly more likely to suffer from neurological and eyesight disorders, be hyperactive, develop learning conditions such as attention deficit disorder, and to display behavioral problems. Omega-3 deficiencies have also been tied to many conditions such as asthma, allergies, eczema, dyslexia, and memory problems.
Your brain is more than 60% structural fat, just as your muscles are made of protein and your bones are made of calcium. But it's not just any fat – the brain is composed primarily of an omega-3 fatty acid called DHA.
The act of learning requires the brain to form new neural pathways. DHA is critical for the proper formation of these delicate neural synapses, which are composed entirely of DHA. If a child eats almost no omega-3 fatty acids, the brain is forced to use other types of fats that may be available. So the neural network develops slowly and is defective, with the result that the child has learning, memory, and behavioral problems.
In a study of learning ability, rats were raised on a diet that was deficient in omega-3 fatty acids, while a control group ate a diet that was nutritionally complete. Initially, both groups of rats had similar numbers of synaptic vesicles. After a month-long learning program however, the omega-3 enriched rats had considerably more vesicles in their nerve endings and also performed significantly better on tests. This study suggests there may be a direct connection between omega-3 fatty acids, the number of synaptic vesicles in your neurons, and your ability to learn.
The importance of EFAs during pregnancy and nursing
During pregnancy, the child draws omega-3s from the mother's body for the development of its brain, retina, and other tissues. The placenta contains receptors that ensure that omega-3 and omega-6 EFAs are transported from the mother to the baby. No such receptors are found for the non-essential monounsaturated and saturated fatty acids.
Depletion of EFAs during pregnancy may help to explain why women experience more depression, fibromyalgia, and chronic fatigue, and more inflammatory, auto-immune, and collagen diseases than men. Women suffer these problems from 2 to 15 times more frequently than men.
Pregnant women who consume a diet low in omega-3 fatty acids are 3 times more likely to develop pregnancy-related hypertension or pre-ecclampsia. This syndrome is the number one cause of maternal mortality in industrialized nations. Omega-3 deficiency has also been correlated by multiple studies with behavioural and emotional problems, including the incidence and severity of depression (including postpartum), violent behaviour, addictive habits and aggression.
During breastfeeding, the child draws about 11 grams of EFAs daily from the mother. This fat is necessary for the tremendous growth newborns experience, and is crucial for the structural development of their brain and other vital tissues. Research supports a connection between essential fatty acids in a mother's diet and EFA levels in her newborn, particularly the omega-3 fatty acid DHA.
Human breast milk is rich in essential fatty acids (depending on the mother's diet), while infant formula is often lacking in important EFAs. Research has proven that children who are not breast fed long enough, or at all, are at much greater risk of developing several diseases including eczema, asthma, allergies, eyesight disorders, dyslexia, dyspraxia and attention deficit disorder hyperactivity. These diseases often occur together or are called "clustered", and are related to "leaky gut syndrome", which is attributed to an omega-3 deficiency making the digestive system wall too permeable or “leaky”.
The cessation of breastfeeding can coincide with the onset of eczema in babies. Clinical studies are showing that this condition can be reversed with EFA supplementation.
Essential Fatty Acids and Learning Disabilities
A link between essential fatty acids levels and hyperactivity was first hypothesized in 1981. Excessive thirst, frequent urination, dry hair and skin – all symptoms of essential fatty acid deficiency – were observed in a group of hyperactive children. Clinical support for this theory was not obtained until 1987 when a research study confirmed that there was a connection between low blood plasma levels of certain EFAs in children and hyperactivity.
In 1995, a research team at Purdue University discovered that a group of boys with ADHD had significantly lower concentrations of essential fatty acids in their blood, even though their diets were not deficient. The ADHD boys were less likely to have been breast fed than boys without ADHD. Among the ADHD boys who were breast fed, longer breast feeding duration was associated with less severe ADHD symptoms.
Research has also shown that EFA supplementation can assist children in halting the use of Ritalin, and can even reverse dyslexia and dyspraxia. A UK study examined the effect of 4 months of EFA supplementation on symptoms of dyspraxia. Following treatment, dyspraxic children improved on several measures of motor skills and behavior.
In a recent study conducted at Oxford University, children with specific learning difficulties and symptoms of ADHD who were given EFA supplements over a 12 week period, demonstrated a reduction in behavioral and learning problems.
Eyes sharper with omega-3
A recent study by the University of Bristol, UK and researchers at the University of Texas, USA examined the eyesight at the age of 3 and 5 years in a group of 450 toddlers. The children were part of an ongoing study called ALSPAC, which examines childhood health outcomes in relation to maternal diet and environmental factors.
The researchers found that the children with the most developed eyesight had mothers who had either breast-fed them or who had eaten oil-rich fish weekly during pregnancy. The study also found that the level of DHA in the mother's blood was directly related to the amount of oil-rich fish she ate. Mothers consuming such fish once a week had a blood DHA level almost 30% higher than those who rarely ate fish. The study concluded that having an adequate supply of DHA was important in the development of good infant eyesight.
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